The actress and author of Life Is Not a Stage: From Broadway Baby to a Lovely Lady and Beyond shares why her childhood was daunting and the difficult relationships she had with her mother and father.
Actress Florence HendersonOriginally aired on November 7, 2011
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Florence Henderson to this program. She is, of course, one of TV’s all-time iconic moms, thanks to her role on the “The Brady Bunch.” She’s out now with a new memoir about her unlikely role from an impoverished childhood in a place called Indiana to television stardom.
The book is called “Life is Not a Stage: From Broadway Baby to a Lovely Lady and Beyond.” Florence Henderson, good to have you on this program.
Florence Henderson: I’m so excited to be here with you, Tavis. Thank you.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you. We were just talking before we came on camera about your life and my life and yours is very different than mine. But I grew up in Indiana like you.
Henderson: What town?
Henderson: Well, that was a big city.
Tavis: For you, it was, yeah [laugh]. Oh, big city, Kokomo [laugh]!
Henderson: They wrote a song about Kokomo.
Tavis: They’re laughing in Kokomo right now. Big city. My momma’s watching and laughing at us right now in Kokomo. You grew up in Indiana, one of ten kids, so I was just so — and I grew up, of course, watching you on the “The Brady Bunch” and thinking that house is nothing like my house.
Henderson: And it wasn’t anything like mine either [laugh].
Tavis: But I was so tickled when I got into the book just about the interesting part of your life growing up in Indiana. But the thing that got me more than anything else is that childhood in Indiana where your family is concerned is so far removed from this wholesome, loving, blended family that we came to know you through “The Brady Bunch.” Tell me a bit about your childhood in Indiana.
Henderson: Well, as you said, I’m the youngest of ten children. My father didn’t marry until he was almost 50 and then he had 10 children. I was his tenth. I was born when he was close to 70. You know, the Depression, I was born in 1934 — don’t tell anybody.
You know, growing up so poor. My dad was a sharecropper, a dirt farmer, and struggled so hard to make a living, never really did. He also had a drinking problem. My mother’s 25 years younger than my father. So it was a daunting childhood, to say the least.
Tavis: And at one point, your mother left?
Henderson: Yes. When I was about 12 or 13, my mother left and they said she was going to Cleveland to work. She was gone through all of my high school years. I saw her when I got the lead in the last national company of “Oklahoma” when I was 18 and we played Cleveland and that’s where she was working and there she was.
But I always wrote to her. You know, I always hoped that I would have this loving mother and one that was filled with affection and that just wasn’t my mother.
Tavis: What was that reunion like in Cleveland?
Henderson: Well, she was still forceful and strong. You know, it was good to see her and she came back to the hotel. You know, I got her a room. She decided she would show us how to jump rope, my roommate and me. This was after the show about 1:00 in the morning.
The hotel wasn’t too thrilled about that, but that was my mother. “Tell them to think nothing of it,” that was always her mantra. “It’ll never be noticed on a galloping horse,” “Don’t worry about it.”
Tavis: Since you mentioned traveling with “Oklahoma,” a powerful story in the book about a choice that you had to make when your father died. I’ll let you tell the story, but since we’re talking about your mother and you mentioned “Oklahoma,” the connection to your father when he passes is?
Henderson: Well, as I mentioned, my dad had a drinking problem. The last time I saw him when I’d gone home, I’d helped get him off a binge and I shaved him. I shook my finger at him and said, “You know, you can’t do this anymore because I’m not here, my sister’s not here all the time to take care of you.”
I said, “You know, Daddy, sometimes I’d rather see you dead than like this.” Oh, he was so upset that I said that, but this was years of dealing with this. So we’re getting ready to open in “Oklahoma” and I get a call that Daddy had died.
So I go to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and the director and I said, “I really have to go home.” They said, “You can’t. We open tomorrow night in New Haven, Connecticut and we’re sold out and you don’t have an understudy that’s ready to go on.”
So, naturally, I did not get to go home, but deep down, I was relieved. I thought I don’t have to deal with one more issue, but I suffered a lot of guilt for many years because of that.
Tavis: That gives a whole new meaning to “the show must go on.”
Tavis: That you make a choice to stay there versus going to bury your father. So how did you navigate through that in the ensuing years?
Henderson: Well, I remember at that time, I was a strict Catholic and I remember going to confession and, you know, telling the priest how badly I felt. I almost felt like it was a sin, but really I had no choice, but I was glad that I didn’t have the choice, that the decision was made for me.
You know, I developed insomnia because of that, a lot of problems. But the priest said, you know, these things happen and, as we get older, we come to realize how smart our parents really were and, you know, gave me that kind of speech, but that didn’t really help.
You just learn to deal with it. You accept it; you go on and try to understand. I’ve always done that. I love my parents very, very much and my brothers and sisters and I hope the book is about that, about forgiveness and understanding and laughter. You know, you got to laugh at these things.
Tavis: When you said that you had no choice, I know what you meant by that and, of course, in life we always have choices.
Tavis: You could have chosen, if you had wanted to. You could have chosen to say “I’m going to bury my father, do what you have to do. I don’t want it this way, I didn’t plan this, but I must go attend to my father’s business,” if I can use that phrase.
I raise that to ask how you would rank that choice that you had to make amongst other choices you’ve had to make in this business? It came earlier in your career. Was that the toughest choice? You’ve had choices that were tougher? I’m just trying to get a sense of how you rank that amongst your tough choices.
Henderson: You know what, Tavis? This business is always about tough choices. I have four children. There are always choices. Do I take this job? Do I leave my children at this time? It’s always a tough choice. I learned at the time responsibility. You know, your personal sorrow and struggles can’t always define you and what you do.
I learned a great deal about responsibility and I grew up being responsible for a lot of things. So it was just another lesson for me. There’s no way that I could have deserted everybody and caused everybody to lose money and be out of work and I probably would have been sued. I don’t know what would have happened. There was just no choice.
Tavis: How did your growing up in Indiana without your mother and the story now of your father’s passing and not being able to bury him, how did all of this, if it did, influence the way you played or portrayed the character as the Mom on “The Brady Bunch?”
Henderson: Well, I think portrayed Carol Brady as the mother that I always wished I’d had. I think it affected me greatly. You know, all those stories of “The Brady Bunch,” they’re sweet, they’re gentle. I think they’re seen through the eyes of a child and I think why it’s lasted so long. You know, it’s never been off the air.
It just amazes me, but I think to be able to bring that to people, I know so many young people come up to me today and said “I grew up with you, I was a latchkey kid, I didn’t have a father, my father deserted us, you know, I didn’t have a mother,” all of these things, and it crosses all ethnic groups. It’s absolutely amazing to me.
And also, we took it very seriously, you know, doing that show. That’s why it’s so easy to parody because we believed every word of it [laugh].
Tavis: I’m glad you said that because I mentioned earlier that I grew up as a kid in a big family in Indiana watching “The Brady Bunch” and loving “The Brady Bunch” every day. I’m thinking to myself, I’m also growing up in a blended family because there are six kids in my family.
I had an aunt who was murdered and my mother and father took in our four cousins. They’re cousins, but they weren’t part of my immediate family. So we got a blended family going on here. I’m watching this every day and I’m thinking to myself whether or not you ever felt like the show was being preachy or prosethelytizing.
I raise that only because there were so many lessons as a child that I remember learning from watching “The Brady Bunch.” Nowadays you try to teach those lessons, you get told you’re a bit preachy. I mean, you all pulled this off for a lot of people teaching us lessons through this family, but it never came across as preachy. Does that make sense?
Henderson: Absolutely. You know, when the show first came out, we were not critically well received. I remember Sherwood Schwartz, who created us, showing me a review of one critic.
I guess he was a husband and a father and he said, “I know people have been really hard on this show, but what’s wrong with teaching a child to tell the truth, to honor their parents, if they fight with their siblings, make up, respect your teachers, all of those things?”
You know, I think that’s been a very valuable teaching tool and now young parents tell me that they have the DVDs and they watch it together sometimes on Friday nights like they did when they were kids. Do you have young children?
Tavis: I do not.
Henderson: Well, if I had young children today, I’d be concerned about television.
Tavis: As you should be [laugh]. Of course, there’s great children’s programs on PBS, but that’s another issue.
Henderson: That’s a whole other ballgame.
Tavis: Whole other ballgame [laugh]. Let me ask this, I think, as the exit question since my time is running out. You were so well-known, obviously, for playing Carol Brady, but yet you’ve done so many other things in your career. How okay are you with forever being known, more than anything else you’ve ever done, as Carol Brady?
Henderson: I’m okay with that. I think you have to cherish your past because, if you don’t cherish your past and love this moment, you have no future. I know a lot of actors hate that when they’re identified with a role. I know what I’ve done in my career. A lot of people know my Broadway career and other things, but I accept that.
I receive tremendous affection from people all over the world. I get mail from all over the world. You know, I think that’s part of life, learning to accept things you cannot change [laugh]. I’ll never be able to change that, so why waste energy on trying.
Tavis: I think it’s pretty cool, actually. If you’re gonna be known for a character, why not Carol Brady?
Henderson: Yeah. Listen, I could be known for [bleep] or whatever [laugh].
Tavis: Well, anyway [laugh].
Henderson: I’m sorry on that note [laugh].
Tavis: Her name, of course, is Florence Henderson. The new book is called “Life is Not a Stage: From Broadway Baby to a Lovely Lady and Beyond.” Honored to have you on this program. Thanks for your time.
Henderson: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Oh, I’ve enjoyed this immensely.
Henderson: I love fellow Hoosiers [laugh].
Tavis: I love fellow Hoosiers back.
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